Chinatown Bus Firm Cited 204 Times Before Bus Crash: NTSB

Five days before a bus company with
an “unsatisfactory” safety record had a fatal crash last year,
the U.S. Transportation Department indicated it would back off
efforts to shut it down, documents show.

An upgrade in Sky Express Inc.’s rating, which was poor
enough to force it off the road, was pending when a bus carrying
58 passengers overturned on Interstate 95 near Doswell,
Virginia, last May 31, killing 4 passengers and injuring 49,
according to National Transportation Safety Board documents
records.

The company was operating after being cited for 204
violations in 94 roadside inspections in the 10 months before
the accident, according to records made public today as part of
the independent agency’s investigation into the crash.

Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier
Safety Administration, told Bloomberg News last year that a Sky
Express consultant’s statements that her agency was negotiating
to keep Sky Express in business or reduce pending penalties in
the days before the crash were “false.”

“Sky Express was not on the verge of receiving an upgraded
safety rating or a reduced fine for safety violations,” Ferro
said at the time.

The Sky Express crash was the third in a span of 11 weeks
along I-95 between Virginia and New York last year. Those
crashes sparked a yearlong investigation that resulted in an
unprecedented enforcement sweep last month in which the bus
regulator closed 26 companies, many of them operating to and
from New York’s Chinatown, as imminent safety hazards.

Rating Improvement

On May 26, 2011, FMCSA enforcement officials completed a
four-day compliance review, or CR, to determine whether Sky
Express had fixed safety problems discovered in April that were
severe enough to warrant an “unsatisfactory” rating.

The investigators’ findings were under review when the
accident occurred on May 31, the NTSB report said. “However, at
the conclusion of this CR the FMCSA indicated that the company
would probably receive a proposed rating of ‘Conditional,’” it
said.

That rating would have let Sky Express remain on the road
if not for the accident, which prompted the FMCSA to order it
shut down.

Agency Response

The bus agency’s division administrator, who has final
authority on the outcome of compliance reviews, wasn’t
considering a rating upgrade for Sky Express after the on-site
review completed May 26, Justin Nisly, a Transportation
Department spokesman, said in an e-mail.

“Both the division administrator and the FMCSA
investigator assigned to the case had significant concerns about
Sky Express’s efforts to come into compliance with safety
regulations, and made clear to the company that no decision had
been reached and that the investigation was continuing,” Nisly
said.

A 45-day appeal period for Sky Express to show it had fixed
its safety shortcomings or be shut down began April 13, 2011,
meaning it was set to expire before the crash. The bus agency
instead extended the appeal period by 10 days. The crash
happened during that 10-day extension.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said after the crash
that the extension shouldn’t have been given and that no more
would be during his tenure.

Safety Violations

The FMCSA’s failure to close Sky Express was part of a
pattern over its 12-year history and was linked to a growing
number of crashes, some of them fatal, Deborah Hersman, chairman
of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in an
interview last year.

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Sky Express didn’t have
written safety policies or a driver’s handbook on drug and
alcohol use, seat belts and mobile-phone use, the NTSB found.
Its only criteria for hiring drivers was that the applicant held
a commercial driver’s license and be 21 years of age or older,
it said.

Kin Yiu Cheung, the 37-year-old driver in the Sky Express
crash, was hired in July 2010 with no previous commercial
driving experience, according to the NTSB. He was previously
employed as a restaurant delivery driver.

The company’s registered address was the Charlotte home of
its corporate secretary, even though most of its business was
conducted in New York’s Chinatown.

Sky Express kept its 32 motorcoaches in a rented lot in
Brooklyn and relied on various repair shops in New York for
maintenance, the NTSB found. Like many so-called curbside
carriers, the company didn’t have a terminal or its own
maintenance facility.

There were no procedures for reporting defects except to
call the company’s vice president, the NTSB said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jeff Plungis in Washington at
jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Bernard Kohn at
bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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